Pope’s prayer intention for June: For migrants fleeing their homes

The prayer intention of the Pope for June centres on the plight of refugees fleeing their homes due to war, hunger, and the subsequent perilous journeys they endure.

May 31, 2024


Prayer Prism - Fr Fabian Dicom

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents’. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. To calm me down, my grandfather told me they were mean people, but I still prayed for them, because even if some considered them mean, they were still dead human beings.

“Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her.”

Alia fled her home in Aleppo, Syria and is currently living in Damour, Lebanon. She shared her story through Gruppo Aleimar, an Italian NGO which provides free nutritious meals to refugees in the Damour area. Alia is seven years old.

(Source: Miranda Cleland, 13 Powerful Refugee Stories From Around The World - meduim.com)

The prayer intention of the Pope for June centres on the plight of refugees fleeing their homes due to war, hunger, and the subsequent perilous journeys they endure. This vital call to prayer urges us to open our hearts and borders to those in desperate need of refuge and to translate our prayers into meaningful support.

The Global Crisis of Displacement
In recent years, the world has witnessed unprecedented levels of human displacement. Conflicts in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar have forced millions to flee their homes, seeking safety and stability elsewhere. Hunger, exacerbated by climate change and political instability, has driven countless others to undertake dangerous journeys in search of sustenance and a better life.

The Impact of the Gaza Conflict
The recent conflicts in Gaza have also contributed significantly to the global refugee crisis. Escalating violence has resulted in substantial loss of life, widespread destruction, and the displacement of thousands of Palestinians. Families, once settled in their communities, have been forced to flee their homes under the constant threat of air-strikes and ground incursions. This dire situation has exacerbated the already critical humanitarian crisis in the region.

Consider the story of Ahmed, a father of three from Gaza. When the conflict intensified, Ahmed’s family home was destroyed by an airstrike. With no place to go, they joined the masses of displaced persons seeking refuge in overcrowded shelters and neighbouring countries. The journey was perilous, marked by scarcity of food, water, and medical supplies. Despite the uncertainties, Ahmed remains hopeful for a future where his children can live in peace and rebuild their lives.

The Plight of Refugees in Malaysia
Closer to home, Malaysia has become a temporary haven for many refugees, particularly from Myanmar, including the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority. Despite Malaysia not being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it hosts over 180,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the actual number is likely higher, as the registration process is lengthy and challenging. Many asylum seekers remain unregistered, not so much due to fear and uncertainty, but because the process of registration and refugee status determination (RSD) is long and tedious.

The process of registering and obtaining a UNHCR card, or, at the very least, a letter stating that an asylum seeker is a ‘Person of Concern” serves as a form of protection against arbitrary harassment, arrest and detention, enables a form of discounted access to health care and provides a general sense of security and identity in an otherwise alien and unfamiliar surroundings. However, many seeking asylum do not easily get registered or obtain relevant documents. The chances of obtaining these documents are higher if there is some form of vulnerability, such as medical conditions or accidents affecting quality of life and also if one is subject to domestic violence.

Deteriorating conditions in Myanmar and in neighbouring Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp are driving scores of underage Rohingya girls to Malaysia for arranged marriages with Rohingya men who frequently abuse them.

In an article entitled I feel trapped: Scores of underage Rohingya girls forced into abusive marriages in Malaysia in Associated Press News, Kristen Galineau writes the following: “In a bedroom in Malaysia that has become a prison, the 14-year-old girl wipes away tears as she sits cross-legged on the concrete floor. It is here, she says, where her 35-year-old husband rapes her nearly every night.” Her journey to Malaysia, arranged by a neighbour who facilitated the marriage in exchange for financial support for her family, was filled with terror. And so, the teenager tearfully hugged her parents goodbye. Then she climbed into a trafficker’s car packed with children. Now, here in Malaysia, trapped in a room devoid of furniture and cloaked in teddy bear pyjamas, she expresses a longing to return home, but feels imprisoned and hopeless. “I want to go back home, but I can’t,” she says in a small voice barely above a murmur. “I feel trapped.”

Also consider the experience of Sulaiman, a 33-year-old Rohingya refugee, who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh after military attacks on his village. He joined nearly a million others in the Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp, enduring severe poverty, lack of clean water, inadequate education, and poor medical care. Seeking a better life, Sulaiman aimed for Malaysia, despite its lack of formal refugee recognition and high risks. In 2012, he survived a perilous two-month boat journey with minimal supplies, facing death and witnessing many perish. Upon arrival, he endured arrests, beatings, and severe poverty due to employment restrictions.

In 2018, Sulaiman received a UNHCR card and began teaching English to refugee children through an NGO. He believes education is crucial for breaking the cycle of poverty and advocates for better resources, volunteer teachers, and community support. Despite hardships, he dreams of a future where these children are educated and can contribute to society. For the Rohingya, repatriation is impossible and resettlement opportunities are rare. Local integration in Malaysia, supported by the community, is the most viable path forward.

Translating our prayer into action: A Catholic perspective in Malaysia
While prayer is our primary means to intercede with God for help and is a powerful tool for expressing solidarity and compassion, it is crucial to translate prayer into tangible forms of actions that make a difference in the lives of refugees. Guided by Scripture and the Social Teachings of the Church, here’s how Catholics in Malaysia can embody our prayer through practical steps:

1. Change the Lens through which we See
To truly embody the spirit of our prayer, we must first change the lens through which we view refugees. According to Catholic teaching, every person is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Seeing refugees as fellow humans, with families, needs, and dreams, is imperative. They have stories and hopes, just like us. When we view refugees this way, we develop empathy and better understand their struggles. This change helps us take meaningful action and offer compassionate support.

Reflecting on our emotions when witnessing hatred directed at refugees and when observing “vigilantes” harassing refugees striving to make a living can reveal our true stance on the refugee situation in our midst.

2. Embrace Solidarity
Solidarity is a core principle of Catholic Social Teaching, emphasising the interdependence of humanity. Solidarity is more than just a lofty ideal; it is those simple, everyday actions that affirm the dignity of others. A gesture as small as a smile can have a profound impact, restoring a sense of humanity and worth to those who have faced dehumanising circumstances. Solidarity involves reaching out and connecting on a human level, showing refugees that they are not alone and that their struggles are seen and understood. This can be the foundation for building trust and providing more substantial support.

3. Advocacy and Awareness
Raising awareness about the dire circumstances faced by refugees is absolutely crucial. Utilising social media platforms, hosting community gatherings, and participating in public forums are powerful avenues to amplify their stories and highlight the daunting challenges they endure, including the alarming reports of mistreatment within Malaysian detention camps. Advocacy becomes even more imperative in pushing for policies that not only safeguard their rights but also create opportunities for them to rebuild their shattered lives. By staying well-informed and raising our voices, we can rally broader support and catalyse essential change. This advocacy effort is deeply rooted in the Catholic call to justice and peace, which demands the protection of the rights and dignity of every individual, especially those suffering inhumane conditions within detention facilities in Malaysia.

4. Bridge the Gap with Collaborative Compassion
The challenges faced by refugees are complex and multifaceted, requiring a collective response rooted in the spirit of compassion and cooperation. To truly embody our faith, it is essential to collaborate with various organisations and individuals, each contributing their unique strengths and resources. By working together, we can ensure that our efforts are not duplicated but, rather, complement each other, leading to more effective and efficient support for refugees. This cooperation mirrors the interconnectedness emphasised in Catholic Social Teaching, highlighting the importance of solidarity and the common good.

Collaborative compassion involves partnering with local parishes, diocesan and episcopal integral human development structures, non-governmental organisations, and community groups to create a robust support network. This network can provide a range of services, from immediate relief, such as food and shelter, to long-term initiatives like education and job training. By bridging the gap through these partnerships, we can offer comprehensive and sustainable solutions that uphold the dignity and rights of refugees, reflecting the love and mercy that are at the heart of our faith.

Working together in this way allows us to transform our prayer into concrete and concerted actions, providing hope and opening a pathway to a better future for those who have been forcibly displaced. Through such collective effort, we translate the teachings of Christ into manifest action even as He precisely calls us to serve and uplift the most vulnerable among us.

The Pope’s June prayer intention reminds us of our shared humanity and moral duty to support those in need. By advocating for better protections and providing direct support, we can foster an inclusive society that embraces refugees and asylum seekers with compassion and dignity.

Through this month’s papal intention, let us once more renew our perspective on them through a compassionate and caring lens, embrace their reality through human solidarity, promote and defend their rights through means of social and political advocacy and work corroboratively across the board with all others of good will to ensure that every refugee, every asylum seeker and every forcibly displaced person may find friendship, solace and protection in us and in our midst.

I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the following persons for their invaluable insights and inputs: Dr Ramona Pereira from Médecins Sans Frontières, Glorene Das Executive Director of Tenaganita, Fr Paul Dass SJ, Anil Netto President of Aliran, James Lochhead of the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign (PSHTC) and Francis Tan of Caritas Penang. 

(Fr Fabian Dicom is the National Office Director for Caritas Malaysia.)

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